The timing of the conversation was significant, as Trump is about to welcome Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, for a three-day visit
In a statement, the White House said Trump and Xi “discussed numerous topics, and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our One China policy.” It described the call as “extremely cordial” and said the leaders had invited each other to visit.
The concession was clearly designed to put an end to an extended chill in the relationship between China and the United States. Xi, stung by Trump’s unorthodox telephone call with the president of Taiwan in December and his subsequent assertion that the United States might no longer abide by the One China policy, had not spoken to Trump since Nov. 14, the week after he was elected.
Administration officials concluded that Xi would take a call only if Trump publicly committed to upholding the 44-year-old policy, under which the United States recognized a single Chinese government in Beijing and severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
The Chinese state news media, in its readout of the call, said Trump had “stressed that he fully understood the great importance for the U.S. government to respect the One China policy” and that “the U.S. government adheres to the One China policy.”
Chinese media also said the two leaders had agreed on the “necessity and urgency of strengthening cooperation between China and the United States” and noted that Beijing wants to work with Washington on a range of issues, including the economy and trade, science, energy, communications and global stability.
The timing of the conversation was significant, as Trump is about to welcome Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, for a three-day visit that will include a weekend of golf in Florida — a visit that will be closely monitored in China.
Among the issues Trump is expected to discuss with Abe, administration officials said, is the president’s commitment to a mutual defense treaty with Japan, which surfaced during the campaign. At the time, Trump said he was prepared to pull back from the pact unless Tokyo did more to reimburse the United States for defending Japanese territory.
Trump plans on Friday to reaffirm his support for the treaty, as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did during a visit to Tokyo last week, and make clear that it extends to disputed islands in the East China Sea, known in Japan as the Senkaku and in China as the Diaoyu, the officials said.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson met with officials at the White House to discuss issuing a statement. His involvement was noteworthy because he had pledged, in written answers to questions after his Senate confirmation hearing, to uphold the One China policy.
Tillerson specifically rejected the idea, advanced by Trump, that Taiwan be used as a bargaining chip in a broader negotiation with China on trade, security and other issues.
On Wednesday, the White House sent a letter from Trump to Xi wishing him a happy Chinese New Year, which administration officials described as an effort to keep the relationship between the countries from unraveling further while they sought to resolve the tensions.
Relations between Washington and Beijing had been frozen since December, when Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1979, and Trump defended the call by saying he did not know why the United States should be bound by the One China policy.
To lay the groundwork for a better relationship, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, spoke last Friday with China’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi. That call produced only a vague commitment to “reinforce high-level exchanges,” suggesting that Trump’s statements on China still precluded a direct leader-to-leader exchange.
As a gesture of conciliation, Flynn and his deputy, K.T. McFarland, hand-delivered Trump’s letter to China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai. Trump wrote that he wished “the Chinese people a happy Lantern Festival and prosperous Year of the Rooster.” He also said he “looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China.”
But there were indications that the administration recognized it needed to do more. Tillerson, officials said, suggested that Trump publicly reaffirm his commitment to the One China policy as a way of breaking the deadlock and getting the two presidents back on the phone.
For Trump, it was a significant reversal. In an interview with Fox News in December, he said the policy should be contingent on extracting concessions from Beijing.
“We’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea,” he said.
Since his inauguration, Trump has spoken by phone with about 20 world leaders. Although these are usually highly scripted affairs, Trump’s have been anything but. His conversation last week with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia turned contentious when Turnbull urged Trump to honor an agreement made under President Barack Obama to accept 1,250 refugees from an offshore detention center.
But arguably, no bilateral relationship is more important than the one between Beijing and Washington, and the fact that Trump and Xi had not talked since Trump took office in January had drawn increasing scrutiny.
“The U.S.-China relationship only works if the two leaders have a serious relationship and use their contact to do real business,” said Evan S. Medeiros, who was senior director for Asia on the National Security Council under Obama. “Given the rigidity of the Chinese system, leader-level contact provides essential stability, direction and momentum to U.S.-China ties.”